Earlier this month, just as United Nations weapons inspectors were packing their trunks for Baghdad and the Pentagon was honing its invasion plans, a group of U.S. soldiers headed for home. The 45 Special Forces troops who had guarded Afghan President Hamid Karzai since summer — and already saved his life at least once — left. The Bush administration replaced them with mercenaries.
Though this fateful decision has drawn little notice at home, it may have fatal consequences for Karzai and Afghanistan. And it could sharply undermine international confidence in American commitments abroad, the last thing we need as we try to sustain support for disarming Saddam Hussein.
The decision to contract out Karzai’s security detail is not surprising. We have witnessed a huge boom in “private military corporations” since the end of the Cold War.
Part of this is because as regular armies have shrunk, the number of available freelancers has grown. And part has to do with the giddy faith that the government has come to place in the private sector as the stock market boomed and the American economy reached unprecedented heights.
It became a gospel of sorts that private companies could clean streets, run prisons or even fight wars more cheaply and efficiently than could bureaucrats.
The recent scandals in corporate America have taken much of the luster off this myth, but Republicans in Washington hang on to it. And corporations can do some things better. No one argues that the Army needs to clean its own toilets, for example.
But for actual military uses, private contractors offer few of the benefits that privatization was supposed to deliver. They are neither cheaper nor more effective than government workers. Worse, they’re unaccountable and hard to control, which makes them particularly ill suited to a mission like guarding Karzai.
Consider DynCorp, a $2-billion Virginia-based corporation that has been hired to protect the Afghan leader. Some of its work has been exemplary. But it has recently been mired in scandals, including a prostitution ring in Bosnia and allegations of overbilling, cost overruns and poor maintenance work.
Further, though contractors are sometimes ruthlessly effective in combat situations — in Sierra Leone, for example, a handful of South African mercenaries quickly reversed the course of the war — their tactics often are indiscriminate, which could be disastrous in Afghanistan, where many in the government already resent Karzai and his U.S. supporters and are just waiting for them to slip up.
Such a slip-up seems almost inevitable.
Most of Karzai’s new, private bodyguards will be former Special Forces troops. But as civilians, they’ll find it tough to get the intelligence, communications and military support critical to predicting threats to their client and keeping him alive.
Given these drawbacks, why has the Bush administration decided to swap Karzai’s elite military guardians with mercenaries? The administration isn’t telling.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has suggested that it’s because he needs the bodies for Iraq. But given the tiny numbers involved, this strains credulity.
Here is another possibility: The Pentagon need not disclose the details of contracts under $50 million, and the State Department, which has hired DynCorp in this case, does not have to publicly discuss such “proprietary contracts.” Nor can Congress interfere or set guidelines as it could were actual troops involved. Using DynCorp to help keep the peace in Afghanistan leaves room for deniability in case something goes wrong.
But by contracting out this mission, the Bush administration has made a dangerous gamble. In order to keep the job quiet, it has risked the life of a man whom we are very much interested in keeping alive.
If one of DynCorp’s bodyguards commits a crime, kills an Afghan or allows the death of Karzai, no one in Afghanistan or abroad will really care that the malefactor was a contract worker, not a soldier; only that he was American and that he failed.
At a moment when Washington is trying to persuade the world to support a possible war in Iraq and the reconstruction that would have to follow, should we be sending the message that we care more about plausible deniability than the safety of an ally?